John Kristian Dahl (NOR) delivered what only one racer has done to date: Win both Vasaloppet and the Birkebeiner in one season.
“It’s really huge to nail ‘The Double’ – to first win Vasaloppet and then win this. It feels awesome,” Dahl said after winning the 54-kilometer classic race on Saturday.
Nobody has won both the legendary ski marathons in the same season since Sven-Åke Lundbäck did it back in 1981.
No easy win
However, the victory wasn’t handed to him on a plate. At the finish line he was so exhausted he just lay in the snow for minutes. Race support crew and fellow competitors came up to him to check on him and help him get his skis and his backpack off, and give him the hard-earned laurel wreath.
“I was totally cooked when we got to the final stretch to the finish line. The last part of the race was all about positioning, because one of the tracks was hard and icy, the others were not. Anders (Aukland) chose that track. It cost a lot more energy to be in the other tracks that were suctiony,” Dahl explained.
“There were several racers who were eager to win the sprint finish, but I saw an opportunity. The inside turn was open, so I took it. But then Petter Eliassen jumped in right behind Anders. Luckily, I didn’t crash, but I also didn’t get the track that I wanted,” said Dahl, who didn’t give up despite the fatigue and the unfortunate turn.
“You never know, but I had a good feeling. I had really good skis,” he said, adding that he had chosen a white structure for the day.
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A white structure is a term describing grinds and structures that are optimized for conditions right around freezing, which he knew would be best for the latter part of the Birkie course. That proved a good decision.
While all the elite men were skiing without kick wax, glide was an even bigger factor, especially toward the end when fatigue becomes a major issue.
One of the main challenges with the Birkebeiner is the constantly changing conditons. Crossing two mountain ranges and covering a wide range of altitudes, temperatures, shaded and exposed areas, skis will always be a compromise over the 54-kilometer course. While the strongest racer wins, the strongest racer often also chooses the skis wisely.
Nailed the strategy
The elite men stayed together from the start and at the halfway point they were still a large field. Dahl wanted to better control the race development, and attacked at the 28-kilometer milepost.
“I wanted a smaller group to work with. I did a half-serious effort to attack early in the race, but I noticed there wasn’t a lot to be had,” Dahl said, adding that he spent a lot of energy on creating a gap.
Finally, a breakaway group of six formed: Petter Eliassen (Team Leaseplan Go), Sjur Røhte (Voss IL), Anders Aukland (Team Santander), Øyvind Moen Fjeld (Team Santander) and Tord Asle Gjerdalen (Team Santander).
“We raced hard up to Midtfjellet to see who would hang on, but then it mellowed out a bit. It was really hard to ski in front in the increasingly suctiony snow, so I dropped back from time to time to conserve energy,” Dahl said.
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The Birkie is unique
After winning Vasaloppet, Dahl had less than two weeks to reset and start prepping for the Birkie. Both races are part of the long-distance championship series Ski Classics, but the Birkie is vastly different from the Vasa.
“Well, for starters, I have to go on a diet and shed several kilos before the Birkie, and I should probably try to double-pole some uphills,” Dahl said only half-joking after the Vasaloppet victory.
“The Birkie is much shorter than Vasaloppet, but much more demanding in terms of engine and climbing capacity. At the same time, then you are done with the hills at Midtfjellet, which makes the Birkie a short race in terms of climbing,” he explained.
The last race of the 2016 Ski Classics is the 65-kilometer Årefjällsloppet on April 2. But first, Dahl is taking a break to enjoy his victories and spend time with his family.
“I will start my Easter break with a good feeling now,” Dahl said.
Top 3 men elite
1. John Kristian Dahl, Team United Bakeries, 2:27:34
2. Anders Aukland, Team Santander, 2:27:34
3. Petter Eliassen, Team Leaseplan Go, 2:27:34